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Delacroix's Pastels Dance With Color


By Lee Johnson

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George Braziller

191 pp., $75

Sweeping energy and movement are the mark of the 19th-century French artist Eugene Delacroix's work.

The posed and static were hardly ever his interest; nor was a scrupulously delineated contour his way of drawing.

His images seem to emerge from a play of deeply contrasting light and shadow - and out of a warm sense of color. His color is partly a way of conveying with conviction the qualities of darkness and luminosity (his shadows often contain rich color), and partly an intense expression of feeling and mood. Color is an integral part of his art and not a mere tinting of something that is essentially linear and monochrome.

It would be possible to be familiar with Delacroix and yet scarcely realize that, among the diversity of media at his command, he sometimes used pastel, or colored chalk, with a fine sensitivity and relish. Delacroix scholar Lee Johnson writes in his new book, "Delacroix Pastels": "He seems to have produced roughly one hundred pastels in various states of finish, out of thousands of drawings in other media." The richest of these full-colored pastels on paper rival his much more frequent oil paintings with a potent originality of tone and hue that has remained vivid while some of his oils appear to have darkened.

To write a book about Delacroix's pastels, however, is to study a somewhat obscure aspect of the artist. Yet this is what Johnson has done, perhaps because a series of books on artists who have used pastel (Degas, Whistler, and Redon so far) provides a context.

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Johnson points out that the contemporaries of Delacroix, notably Ingres and Gericault, had no interest in pastel. It was not fashionable in the first half of the 19th century, as it had been in the 18th. Even for Delacroix it was "mainly a private activity" - though a number of the examples in this book (which is as comprehensive as current knowledge allows) were gifts the artist made for friends, usually female. Some of these were virtual replicas, though in pastels, of oil paintings.

Since pastel was not to a significant degree one of Delacroix's habitual media, each time he used it he may have approached it with a stimulating lack of familiarity. He resorted to it, the book makes clear, for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes he used it in preparatory studies for large oils. Rather than being simply drawings, such pastels provided him the opportunity to think, during planning stages, in color. He also used watercolor for similar reasons - though pastel, in his hands at least, had more of the weight and density of oil paint than watercolor could have. A strong instance of this is seen in the powerful "Christ Walking on the Waters." Johnson writes that since it is clearly "not a presentation piece," this pastel "may be a study for a painting that either was never finished or remains untraced."

As it is, it stands on its own as a remarkable conception of this Biblical event. Delacroix knew a painting of this subject by Rubens - the 17th-century Flemish artist he greatly admired. About this particular Rubens, however, he had certain reservations: He "commented that the poses lacked warmth." Certainly he instilled into his two main figures both warmth and a heightened drama: The figure of Jesus walks over the waves symbolizing an utterly buoyant confidence, while the floundering disciple Peter epitomizes a degree of panic that makes him reach out with a desperate trust for his savior's sure grasp, "Save me or I perish!"

Other times, as previously mentioned, Delacroix used pastel to replicate oil paintings, and in the most finished examples the result lacked nothing of the body and completeness of the original oil. The only problem is that pastel is much more fragile than oil on canvas. This is one reason that a comprehensive exhibition of Delacroix pastels is unlikely - an added justification for gathering them together in a book.

Johnson points out an advantage pastel has over watercolor when used to make quick sketches or notations from nature. "Unlike watercolor, pastel does not change hue or shade after it has been applied to the paper, and it is therefore ideal for instantly and accurately catching transitory effects of light and color."

It is true that watercolor loses much of its immediate translucency and freshness as it dries. But pastel has other disadvantages, including its tendency to dust and smudge if not fixed - and fixative certainly alters its "hue or shade." Also, as Johnson himself points out in the case of some of Delacroix's carefully worked up pastels (even over several years), pastel is not necessarily "instant." For one thing, it cannot be spread rapidly across the paper in broad liquid washes. It is, after all, dry chalk.

Where it can be remarkably effective, however, is in the suggestion of the sparkle and flash of sunlight scattered across a sky or a landscape - as is shown in "View from Delacroix's House at Champrosay." The rich dark greens of trees and bushes are spangled with small highlights (something that Delacroix may well have made his own after studying the landscapes of John Constable), and this pastel looks as though it must be as fresh - and apparently spontaneous - as it was when he made it.

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